The last picture made by Osamu Tezuka’s Mushi Production is a beautiful wounded bird, still singing a sweeter and more original song than many productions before and since. Tezuka is credited as producer on Kanashimi no Belladonna, but his involvement was purely formal; the third part of his Animerama trilogy was directed by his longtime collaborator Eiichi Yamamoto as Mushi collapsed under the weight of its own daring.
Now this gorgeous picture, freely adapted from Jules Michelet’s La Sorciere, is scheduled for US release in a restoration from the original 35mm camera negative and soundtrack. Cinelicious plans to release it in theatres as well as on VOD and disc. Cinema is definitely THE place to see Belladonna: it belongs on a huge screen with Masahiko Sato’s psychedelic rave-rock score at full blast through a theatre-size system, complementing the hallucinatory images.
Tezuka’s limited animation methods were a huge influence on the nascent TV anime industry in 1963; a decade later, as Mushi Pro crashed and burned, its swansong spread that influence even further. Track its footprints through the many pre-digital anime that used art, ingenuity and sheer cheek to replace cel-count, time and money. Madhouse is just one of the studios whose work would look very different without Kanashimi no Belladonna in its bloodline. The evocative charm of watercolour would not be exploited so beautifully in anime until Isao Takahata made My Neighbours the Yamadas, Studio Ghibli’s technical tour de force disguised as a family drama, in 1999.
Fewer people nowadays claim that anime is “uniquely Japanese” – as if it were made in a bubble by a group of fundamentalist High Elves, not by a curious, ferociously talented nation that has been gobbling up every titbit of novelty the rest of the world could offer for over 150 years. I like to think that The Anime Encyclopedia has helped that change along by marking out crossing points like this: a Japanese film based on a French original with music that draws on European and American traditions to create a work of art that is anything but isolationist.
This isn’t just a movie for anime fans, although it is essential viewing for anyone with an interest in how modern anime came to be. It’s for everyone who loves film. It’s also a word of encouragement for every artist in every medium who has struggled to create beauty and meaning on a shoestring and a diet of pot noodles when the electricity has been cut off and nobody else gives a damn.